Skip to main content

The Six Sins of Greenwashing

Is green marketing just a series of lies? That's one conclusion to be drawn from a new study that examines hundreds of environmental labeling claims and found pretty much all of them wanting, suffering from sins of either omission or commission.

Is green marketing just a series of lies?

That's one conclusion to be drawn from a new study that examines hundreds of environmental labeling claims and found pretty much all of them wanting, suffering from sins of either omission or commission.

Is it any wonder that consumers are overwhelmingly wary of green marketing and view it as "just a sales tactic"?

Or that while market researchers swear that majorities of consumers want to make green choices, most green products garner only small slivers of the market?

This past spring, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which consults on green marketing and administers its own labeling and certification program, sent research teams into six category-leading "big box" stores with orders "to record every product-based environmental claim they observed." TerraChoice instructed the teams that, for each environmental claim, they should "identify the product, the nature of the claim, any supporting information, and any references offered for further information."

The products studied included a wide range of offerings, from air fresheners to appliances, televisions to toothpaste. In total, the team identified 1,018 products making 1,753 claims. Of those products, "all but one made claims that are either demonstrably false or that risk misleading intended audiences."

That's right. Only one - a house-branded paper product sold by one Canadian retailer - came through unscathed.

The result of this exercise can be found in a new report, "The Six Sins of Greenwashing", a sobering and slightly depressing look at today's green marketplace. Over the past two weeks, I've had a chance to review the report and discuss it with Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice and the report's principal author. (You can hear an interview I did with Case on GreenBiz Radio.)

I'll be honest. As skeptical and critical as I've been on green marketing in recent years, I didn't believe TerraChoice's findings at first. When Case first told me what he and his team had found, I assumed they had set an impossibly high standard for green claims.

In reality, TerraChoice simply wanted some basic facts: "What proof is there that a product actually meets this claim?" Case asked. "What we found was that a vast majority couldn't answer simple questions."

Case explained to me the evaluation process:

We actually pulled out all of the different environmental marketing guidelines. We looked at what the Federal Trade Commission says about environmental marketing claims. We looked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommendations. We looked at ISO's recommendations. We looked at what Consumer Union, the publisher Consumer Reports, said about it.

And we said, Okay, these are going to be the standards to evaluate environmental claims. So we took these 1,018 products. We squished them through these different environmental claims and only one popped out the other side as not having committed what we're now calling one of the "six sins of greenwashing."

The "sins" identified by TerraChoice include:

  • Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off - claims that suggest a product is "green" based on a single environmental attribute (the recycled content of paper, for example) or an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important, or perhaps more important, environmental issues (such as the energy, climate, water, or forestry impacts of paper). Such claims aren't usually false, but paint a misleading picture of the product than a more complete environmental analysis would support. This was the most frequently committed "sin," made by 57% of all environmental claims examined.
  • Sin of No Proof (26% of all claims examined) - any claim that couldn't be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a reliable third-party certification. TerraChoice determined there to be "no proof" if supporting evidence was not accessible at either the point of purchase or at the product website.
  • Sin of Vagueness (11% of all claims examined) - any claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the intended consumer, such as "chemical free" or "all natural."
  • Sin of Irrelevance (4% of all claims examined) - claims that may be truthful but are unimportant and unhelpful for consumers, such as CFC-free products, since ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons have been outlawed since the late 1980s.
  • Sin of Lesser of Two Evils (1% of all claims examined) - environmental claims that may be true, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole, such as organic tobacco or green insecticides.
  • Sin of Fibbing (less than 1% of all claims examined) - claims that are simply false, typically by misusing or misrepresenting certification by an independent authority, when no such certification had been made

I'm not sure all of these "sins" qualify as greenwashing, which I define as an intentional effort to misrepresent a product, service, or company as being environmentally responsible or improved. True, some of the claims TerraChoice examined represent outright fabrications. But much of this is less sin than sloppiness -- marketers' efforts to place a green sheen on a product, perhaps rightfully so, but without offering some basic proof points.

Either way, it's a pathetically poor performance for marketers.

And it's all too reminiscent of the early 1990s, when the modern green consumer movement began, at least in the U.S. Many of the products introduced at the time - recycled paper towels, green cleaners, biodegradable trash bags, energy-efficient lights, and more - were similarly poorly documented or misrepresented by their manufacturers and marketers. The ensuing reprimands by government agencies, environmental groups, and enterprising journalists did a great deal to sour consumers' appetite for green products, some of which still lingers today.

None of this bodes well for the growing green marketplace. As major retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Staples stock their shelves with a steady stream of environmentally preferable products, and thousands of both big and small manufacturers introduce environmental improvements and innovations into their product lines, the need for accountability will multiply. And without even a modicum of scrutiny, we'll see a Wild West of Green, in which marketers can make pretty much any green claim with impunity.

What will it take to bring honesty, accuracy, accountability, and transparency to the marketplace? Who will pick up where TerraChoice left off, scrutinizing products making green claims? Who will hold companies accountable?

The obvious answer, of course, would be for a trusted environmental label to emerge - a Green Housekeeping Seal of Approval, or some such. But there already are a myriad of eco-labels - Consumer Reports lists 147 of them - and none (including TerraChoice's own labels) has made significant inroads. Except for the government-controlled organic certification and the Energy Star label, you'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of green-labeled products in a typical store.

Who will step up? In the 1990s, in the wake of the greenwashing claims of the day, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission chimed in, issuing environmental marketing guidelines that, while weak, still make basic sense today. The FTC also took on a small number of product purveyors, essentially slapping their corporate wrists for their marketing misdeeds. A task force of state attorneys general, headed by Minnesota's then AG, Hubert H. Humphrey III, rode into town, held hearings, and issued two reports, disappearing soon thereafter.

One of those reports, issued in December 1990 (downloadable here - PDF), recommended that:

  • Environmental claims should be as specific as possible; not general, vague, incomplete or overly broad.
  • Environmental claims relating to the disposability or potential for recovery of a particular product (e.g., "compostable" or "recyclable") should be made in a manner that clearly discloses the general availability of the advertised option where the product is sold.
  • Environmental claims should be substantive.
  • Environmental claims should, of course, be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.

That seems like Ethical Marketing 101. Why, all these years later, isn't it being followed -- or enforced?

This time, the stakes are far bigger than in 1990, with bigger companies and retailers entering the green marketplace, bigger environmental challenges confronting us, and bigger portions of the world's citizenry ramping up consumption. The need for products that deliver substantive, if not radical, reductions in their environmental impacts couldn't be greater.

So, TerraChoice should be lauded for its findings, however painful they may be to read. If the misrepresentation in the green marketplace is even half as bad as its report suggests, marketers need far more than wrist-slapping.

Says Case:

I think the real danger is if people are successful with their greenwashing efforts, then the truly green, the truly innovative companies - the ones that have really figured out how to reduce their carbon footprint, how to produce a nontoxic product, how to make products out of renewable materials that can be reused - the truly innovative products are going to lose out.

As will we all.

More on this topic